A Graphic Novel That Deals with Racial Sterotypes
Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator of the young adult graphic novel American Born Chinese, discusses what makes the comics medium unique and how his book explores Asian-American identity.
CommitmentNow: American Born Chinese is a graphic novel for young adults. What makes this genre so unique?
Gene Luen Yang: First off, thank you so much for taking the time to interview me.
By genre, are you referring to young adult literature? Or are you talking about the comics medium? I think there are all sorts of reasons why the comics medium is unique. It’s a visual storytelling medium, and we live in a visual culture. Unlike other visual storytelling media like animation and film, a single person can have control over every aspect of a comics story. One person can do all the writing, drawing, lettering, and even publishing. As a result, stories told in comics can be very intimate. Comics is an intimate medium.
CommitmentNow: American Born Chinese tells three stories: the Chinese fable of the Monkey King; the story of Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American at his school; and the story of Chin- Kee, a negative stereotype of a Chinese character who visits his American cousin. What ties these three stories together?
Gene: They’re all explorations of Asian American identity, and they also tie together plot-wise at the end of the book. When I started American Born Chinese, I’d been doing comics for about five years. I’d done a bunch of stories with Asian American protagonists, but never a story where cultural identity played a central role. Because my own cultural heritage is such an important part of who I am, I wanted to do a book that with that as the focus. I came up with three ideas and couldn’t decide which one to pursue. In the end, I decided to do them all.
CommitmentNow: What does Chin-Kee represent?
Gene: Chin-Kee is the amalgamation of all the negative Asian and Asian American stereotypes I could think of. Chin-Kee haunts the main character the way those stereotypes haunt Asian Americans. Asian stereotypes have a long history in American media. Even today, in the 21st century, those stereotypes effect how we see ourselves in this country.
CommitmentNow: Jin Wang is treated differently because he is a Chinese-American, and Danny is embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee because he is a reminder of his own race and heritage. How important is it to middle-schoolers to blend and fit in?
Gene: The book is really meant for high-schoolers and young adults, but I think all of us have a desire to fit in, regardless of age.
CommitmentNow: Do you think Asian American kids struggle with the conflict between assimilation and their own racial and cultural differences?
Gene: Some try to separate themselves as completely as possible from our parents’ culture. Others have found ways of building their own culture. I think that’s where the Asian American community is now. We’re in the midst of defining a culture of our own that draws from both Asian and American cultures, but is still something new and distinct.
CommitmentNow: What was your goal in writing and illustrating this book?
Gene: I really wanted to explore this part of my identity on paper, and share it with others.
Gene Luen Yang is an American comics artist whose graphic novel American Born Chinese was named a 2006 finalist for the National Book Award in the young people's literature category. This was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. It has also won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award for young-adult literature, a first for a graphic novel.
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